The press release trumpets hyperbolically that “for the first time on any Globe at this site”, the title role in Othello is played by a black man. But only now, in the rebuilt Globe’s 11th year, is this, one of Shakespeare’s most towering works, being essayed. I wonder whether part of the reason for this delay may have been apprehension about audience response. One of the characteristics of this authentically reconstructed outdoor space in which most of the audience stand as “groundlings” is that Globe crowds tend to be more eager than average to laugh; Titus Andronicus last year worked well as a black comedy, but I have seen even the sexual assault of Isabella in Measure for Measure draw a hearty chuckle.
And Othello has lots of scope to misfire on this score: all that dramatic irony when Iago is pretending to be the bluff ensign or the concerned friend while advancing his malign scheme to ruin his commander; all those occasions when Othello, Cassio and others refer to him as “honest Iago”. Added potential is provided when Iago is played by Tim McInnerny, who despite his long and distinguished CV is remembered primarily for playing Lord Percy and then Captain Darling in the second and fourth Blackadder television comedy series.
Luckily, no one in Shakespeare’s text ever refers to anyone else as “darling”, so that particular snigger is absent. In fact, so is any echo of those comedy roles. McInnerny is not only stockier than the lanky figure in my recollection, but bearded, gruff and quite infernal in all the most admirable ways for the role. In the pivotal scene in which Iago cultivates Othello’s paranoia, McInnerny begins by giving his lines almost no inflection at all; he builds gradually, but still “O beware, my lord, of jealousy!” comes as an explosion, and within a minute or so of that point he is firmly in the driver’s seat, steering Othello’s insecurities with devilish deftness.
As Othello, Eamonn Walker is solid but not monumental. After a shaky start in which he once or twice resorts to thumping the pentameter verse at high speed, he finds the measure of the venue, and the music as well as the feeling in his lines. We are engaged and sympathise with Othello’s delusion, set in motion by Iago but driven by his own fears regarding Desdemona’s ability to love one such as him: an old soldier, an old black soldier. We see Walker’s Othello as a man, but not as a great man. He may be able to stop a brawl with a single bellow, but he lacks the extraordinary stature of the classic tragic hero.
As Desdemona, Zoë Tapper has more backbone than the stereotypical skimmed-milk figure in the role. She withstands first her father’s then her husband’s rage, and even when almost composing herself to die at Othello’s hands suggests that this acquiescence is an act of will on her part rather than ivory saintliness. Lorraine Burroughs is a feisty Aemilia, who can stand up almost as an equal to her husband Iago except in matters of evil. Indeed, both Aemilia, the wife of a non-commissioned officer, and Bianca, a lady (shall we say) of negotiable affection, are played by mixed-race actresses, with the implication that social judgements about miscegenation differ according to class and sex. Wilson Milam’s production allows the groundlings enough dramatic-irony yoks and adds a handful of broad comic gags so that we can get it out of our system and be serious when we ought to be. This may be the tragedy of Othello, but it is the drama of Iago.
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